BP’s looming departure from Alaska marks the end of a very exciting era in this state — and perhaps the beginning of a new one.
My wife and I arrived in Alaska in August 1967 when Richfield Oil was drilling what became its Prudhoe Bay discovery well. That December a small item in The Anchorage Times said bush pilots were reporting that Richfield was flaring gas at its wildcat site at the mouth of the Sagavanirktok River.
The company was by then Atlantic Richfield Co. (ARCO) after Richfield and Atlantic Refining merged the previous year, but Richfield was then the better known of the two and had been operating in Alaska for several years. So the first reports were about Richfield.
In March of 1968 the company announced the Prudhoe Bay discovery and the chattering class came unhinged. A few months later it released preliminary estimates that the new field contained something like 5 billion to 10 billion barrels of recoverable oil and about 26 trillion cubic feet of gas, a humongous discovery.
At that time, we were both working at The Anchorage Times. I was the oil and gas reporter, she was a feature writer and editor of the women’s pages. I got to know some of the ARCO people when I wrote something stupid about oil tankers and was invited to travel on a tanker from Puget Sound to Cook Inlet.
I took the trip and learned from my mistake, but the value of the incident for me came in 1969 when ARCO decided to open a full office in Anchorage to manage its growing interests in the state. Because of my tanker trip I was the only Alaska news person the company’s public relations people knew so they offered me a job at triple my reporter’s salary. We news people didn’t make much but that was the only time in my long career when my pay tripled.
The Prudhoe Bay discovery was big news in an unusual place (the coast of Arctic Alaska) so news people from all over the world wanted to go there. The company wanted credit for the discovery and there was no commercial access, so I arranged many of the Prudhoe trips for news folk. The Alaska district manager let me use his Lear jet so I could get the reporters to the field and get them out quickly to minimize disruptions to operations.
As a young news guy, being able to use a Lear jet was a real hoot. We had two pilots who supplied coffee and donuts for the northbound trip. After the tour we climbed aboard and, once the wheels were up for the return flight, I could open a panel that covered a full bar for the trip back to Anchorage. Luxury living.
One day I got a call at home from a woman who said: “Hello, this is the NBC operator in New York City in the United States.” Not everyone knew that Alaska was then a state and the operator’s statement wanted me to yell: “Hey, Maw, we got a call from the United States.” But I let it go and the woman told me that newsman David Brinkley was on a charter flight between Tokyo and New York and would be refueling in Anchorage. Brinkley was hoping to work in a trip to Prudhoe Bay if I could arrange it.
I was delighted and put in the paperwork asking for use of the Lear jet. But Ralph Cox, the Alaska district manager, decided that my trips were becoming a nuisance and taking up too much of the field manager’s time. So he said no.
I reported that to my boss in New York, who decided that if David Brinkley wanted to go to Prudhoe Bay, David Brinkley would go to Prudhoe Bay. Word went up my side of the corporate house to the top and then down Ralph’s side of the house. Brinkley could go and I was to take him. Ralph Cox then appeared in my office and I was ready to hide under my desk when he said: “If this is so important, I’m going with you.” And he did.
David Brinkley and Ralph Cox were both brilliant people and I sat through the whole trip listening to them the way you would watch a great tennis match, looking from one to the other as they debated issues like the environmental worries about the Alaskan Arctic. It was one of the most fascinating trips I’ve ever taken.
Days like that are long gone, but the interest in Alaska and its developmental issues remains high. New people and new companies are taking the lead these days, but I suspect many will be having experiences like those we did in the years ahead.
BP bought ARCO in 2000 and is selling its Alaska interests to Hilcorp, an independent company that will be part of the new generation leading the oil industry here, a generation with at least as much promise as we had.
I hope they enjoy it as much as I did.